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Now that federal courts have kicked government out of the business of monitoring judicial campaign conduct, a private citizens’ group has jumped in to fill the gap in Georgia. Former American Bar Association President R. William Ide III announced last week the formation of a group — about 40 lawyers and businesspeople — that hopes to keep statewide judicial candidates from resorting to the rough-and-tumble tactics candidates use in executive and legislative campaigns. The group, calling itself the Georgia Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns, plans to ask every candidate for a statewide judicial race to pledge to abide by rules that largely were struck down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002. Prompted by litigation growing out of a 1998 race for Georgia Supreme Court, the 11th Circuit struck down rules of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission that prohibited candidates from making “misleading” statements or personally soliciting campaign donations. Weaver v. Bonner, 309 F.3d 1312 (2002). According to the pledge sheet being distributed, the group wants candidates to pledge to follow those rules and not to say anything that would “lead voters to believe that I will decide any issues or cases in a predetermined manner.” “We do favor great dialogue,” Ide said, about the candidates’ experience, judicial temperament and analysis of an incumbent’s record, if, for example, appeals courts have reversed the judge’s decisions 80 percent of the time. Ide showed three television campaign commercials from Ohio and Michigan that he said crossed the line. In one, three judges were sitting in the breast pocket of an insurance executive, suggesting they were “bought” by that industry. ALL ABOUT FREE SPEECH The 11th Circuit’s ruling relied on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Minnesota’s rules against judicial candidates’ announcing their positions on controversial issues. Both decisions were based on the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee, which Ide said also will be the key to the success of his group. “We have no authority other than our First Amendment rights,” Ide said of his group’s plans to publicize whether candidates sign the pledge and to rebuke candidates whose campaign tactics do not pass muster with the group. Members of the group who gathered recently at Ide’s firm, McKenna Long & Aldridge, seemed to agree that they may have to make some tough calls in the coming campaign, which starts with official qualifying next week and ends with voting on July 20. Ide said the group will focus on whether a campaign is issuing false or misleading information or appearing to commit the candidate to a particular outcome of an issue that would come before the court. Ide has been considering forming this kind of group since late last year, but having just come together a week before the campaign starts is posing a few problems. Some candidates already have solicited donations personally, as per the 11th Circuit’s decision. Court of Appeals candidate Howard N. Mead II said last week that most of the $155,000 he has raised came from telephone calls he made. Michael B. Terry, who is on the Ide committee and a similar group of the Atlanta Bar Association that is monitoring Fulton County, Ga., judicial races, said both groups would tell candidates who already have been raising money personally, “don’t do it anymore.” Terry, a partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, noted that Fulton candidates said personal solicitations were much more effective in raising money than having campaign members make calls on their behalf. “It points out the problem,” said Terry, that sitting judges’ or candidates’ making personal calls for campaign money gives a perception that justice could be for sale. “It’s a different sort of pressure,” he added. Mead could not be reached to react to the group’s pledge request. Thomas C. Rawlings, another candidate for the appeals court, said he would sign the pledge as described by a reporter. Two other candidates, Debra H. Bernes and Lee Tarte Wallace, said they were inclined to sign but wanted to see the form first. Another appeals court candidate, Michael M. Sheffield, said he would not make any false or misleading statements or personally solicit donations. But he would not sign a pledge that limits “my rights of free speech.” Justice Leah Ward Sears, who was the target of the 1998 attack ads that were the subject of the 11th Circuit’s decision, said she also needed to see the form before signing it. But she added, “I like what they are trying to do.” DIVERSE MEMBERSHIP The group Ide put together includes representatives from diverse legal and political constituencies — including Frank B. Strickland, former general counsel of the Georgia Republican Party, and Ide’s law partner, David Balser, who was counsel to the state Democratic Party. Several members of the Ide group come from large firms that usually represent defense interests such as King & Spalding (Benjamin F. Easterlin IV) and Holland & Knight (Harold T. Daniel Jr.). Paul V. Kilpatrick Jr., of the plaintiffs’ firm Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood, also has joined the group. Ide said the group decided that anyone who serves on the group cannot take an active part in the campaign of a judicial candidate being monitored. But contributions made before the formation of the committee would be “grandfathered,” he said. Two original members of the committee, Oscar N. Persons and Charles T. Lester Jr., are co-chairman and treasurer, respectively, of Sears’ campaign. Persons, who is also an honorary co-chairman of Wallace’s campaign, resigned from Ide’s committee Thursday afternoon, citing the group’s new rule. Lester could not be reached. Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the group “could become a factor” in the races — if the rebukes are highlighted by the offending candidate’s opponents. Bullock said the group could be most effective by preventing questionable campaign ads because candidates “don’t want to be singled out on their list of bad guys.”

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